“How much?” I asked.
“30 rupees,” he said, as he passed two steaming Styrofoam cups of coffee through the car window. He looked distracted, looking over his shoulder.
I sipped my coffee and passed on the other to my partner. It was boiling hot, as usual. It wasn’t great either. But that is the case with any street coffee. We weren’t there for the taste. No one ever was. Not in the middle of the night, at least.
He looked over his shoulder again even as he counted out the change to return to me. I looked at my watch. It was 11pm. Any time now, police cars would start their rounds. Mumbai is notoriously old-fashioned that way. We talk of Mumbai nightlife, but apart from a few selected clubs and eateries, there is no nightlife to speak of. There isn’t any allowed to be. But despite that, it remains one of the safest cities in India. Or maybe, it is because of that.
“Don’t the police ever harass you?” I asked him. I was curious. Just the other day I had seen a constable slap a late night coffee-wallah and send him on his way. He had refused to pay his part of the bribe.
He shrugged. “Sometimes they do, I guess.”
I nodded, encouraging him to go further. But he seemed preoccupied in re-arranging his cups.
“But they usually start their rounds at midnight. And by that time I’m out of here. I only come back by 4 am. They’ll all have fallen asleep in their jeeps by then,” he laughed.
A car honked from the other side of the road. New customers. The coffee-wallah stopped his story and immediately rushed over to them.
Little did he know what he stood for. Little did he know that he represented what the entire city stood for – chasing the forbidden fruit. Or perhaps he did. Who am I to say, to pass a superior judgement, sitting in a car as he cycles by. I heard him arguing with his other customers, bargaining for a mere five rupees. The value of money doesn’t just change with country, it differs from person to person too. My five rupees weren’t his five rupees. Just like his five rupees aren’t yours.
“Haan, madamji, so what was I telling you?” He asked. He had made his sale. He seemed happier.
“About the police,” I replied.
“Arre haan! So one night what happened was, I was here. Like everyday. It was late at night. You have time for a story, na?”
I nodded. He took our empty cups from my hand.
“So that day,” he continued, “sales were good. I think it was a Saturday. There were plenty of kids around, girls wearing all those short – short dresses. They’re here every Saturday! From that building, and that one, and that one over there.”
He pointed to a few buildings spanning the road, even mine being one of them.
“You should see them, madamji. They’re kids! Not a day older than sixteen! Or maybe seventeen! That’s it! They drink all night, dance at discos. If my children ever try such a thing, I’ll break their legs before they can even step out of the house!”
I smiled as I thought back to my teenage. I had once been one of those very teenagers he was talking about.
“How old are your children?”
“My older daughter is ten, and my son is six,” he replied, “So that day, it is late at night, madamji. Maybe around 3am. No, maybe a little earlier. Those clubs close at 1:30am nowadays. Earlier they used to stay open till 3am! God only knows what time those kids get home. Don’t their parents notice that their children are missing the whole night? Are they that busy? I work maybe twelve hours a day, my wife works maybe ten hours. She’s a bai, a housemaid, she works at five houses. But every moment, she knows exactly where each child is. I’m their father, but the kids, they’re more scared of their mother!”
I shifted uncomfortably. It was hitting a bit too close to home now.
“You were telling me about that night,” I reminded him, perhaps a bit churlishly.
“Ah yes, that night. I was stupid. I was greedy. I wanted more money. My daughter wanted to go on a school trip. I should have told her no, I don’t have the money. But how do you tell your children that? So I was here even after midnight. I knew the police would come. They always start their rounds after 11 pm. But I stayed. And those kids were giving me good business. They always buy a lot of cigarettes. And sometimes they stay for hours, having coffee after coffee. Cigarette after cigarette. It’s good business. So that day, the police came. And I was still standing here. Such a slap they gave me across the face. I felt like hitting them back. But I have a family to take care of. They’re the police, after all. What can we do? Our fate is to suffer.”
I nodded, wishing he’d get to the point. It was almost midnight. He’d be inviting another slap from the police if he didn’t hurry up.
“They chased me down the road. My wife’s cousin, back in our village, is a constable. I asked him once why they do this. He said it’s to make sure I don’t come back again. Why shouldn’t I come back? Is it their father’s road? But now, I can’t even say this to them. One word against them and they’ll throw me into prison. And my wife will have to run around for months until a bail is set. And this man, my wife’s cousin, he said what I was doing is illegal. What isn’t illegal though? Last elections, they pushed a crisp one thousand rupee note into my mother’s hands. That isn’t illegal? And she doesn’t even vote! She doesn’t even have a voter’s ID. But the police, they’re worse. Lazy, every single one of them. They just don’t want to do any work! Just the other day, a child in my jhopadpatti went missing. And do you know whom they arrested? A boy who called in to say that he’d seen the child on a train with a woman! Poor boy is still rotting away in jail,” he laughed. “But anyway, they chased me down that road, into the mangroves. I paid them five hundred rupees, and then they left. I though I’ll stay there for a while. It was too late to go home and come back. Might as well just stay there for an hour or so until they fall asleep and I’ll come back.”
He paused, swallowing. Or maybe it was a storyteller’s pause. A pause with the knowledge of knowing that the meaty part is just to come. A pause that puts you on the edge, just ever so slightly. Whatever it was, it worked. I was hooked.
“What happened then?” I asked.
He shrugged, a helpless shrug.
“There was a car there. Not a very expensive one. It was Hyundai. Maybe it was an i10, maybe an i20, I don’t know. I didn’t pay attention. There were two boys also. They were young. But they weren’t kids, no. They were boys. Maybe 18 to 20 years old. Yes. They were digging something in there. Now I was curious. In this day and age, who goes around digging? Back in my grandfather’s time, alright, people would bury money, coins and all. But who has treasures nowadays to bury? And those who do bury in their sofas, not in some dirt. So I wanted to see what these boys were up to. Definitely they weren’t up to any good. So I drew closer, slowly and slowly. Now you are wondering what stories is this man telling! But I swear, it’s a true. I went closer, slowly-slowly. And madamji, do you know what they were burying?”
I shook my head no.
“It was a girl. Covered in blood. All over.”
Forgive the cliché, but my jaw dropped open.
“It was a dead girl. Poor thing. May God strike me dead if I’m lying. They must have raped her before killing her,” he added as an afterthought.
He nodded. He didn’t have so many words, all of a sudden.
“That’s what they do. Didn’t you hear of that case a few years ago? Nirbhaya? Same thing happened in Shakti Mills too, but she was lucky. She got away alive.”
Silence. Neither of us knew how to fill it. How do you fill the silence of a person, who was there one moment and gone the next? How do you fill the silence of knowing that “such things happen,” and there is not much you can do about it but accept it? How do you accept the helplessness of such silence?
“Did you tell the police?” I asked him finally.
“How could I, madamji? I wasn’t even supposed to be there.”